20th Anniversary: Lonesome Dove

It’s easy to see why many people relate to the story of Lonesome Dove as their own. In it they see their grandparents, or more abstractly the story of our country at the point its uniquely American character was laboring to be born. That the story is told so well is testament to the clear-eyed vision of Larry McMurtry as he penned his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and to the cast and crew who transcended the limits of television to bring his epic tale to the small screen with integrity intact. A
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It’s easy to see why many people relate to the story of Lonesome Dove as their own. In it they see their grandparents, or more abstractly the story of our country at the point its uniquely American character was laboring to be born. That the story is told so well is testament to the clear-eyed vision of Larry McMurtry as he penned his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and to the cast and crew who transcended the limits of television to bring his epic tale to the small screen with integrity intact. A
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The seventh floor of the Albert B. Alkek Library on the Texas State University-San Marcos campus may seem like an unlikely destination for a pilgrimage, yet the devoted journey here from around the globe. They come to the Lonesome Dove room to view relics from a time and place that, if not quite sacred, is revered as an authentic expression of friendship,

honor, and the hardships of the Old West as it really was.

Upon entering the room, visitors may feel like Call ticking through the journey in his mind at the end of the film. It’s a hell of a vision. The Hat Creek Cattle Company sign is prominently displayed, and is flanked by mannequins wearing the costumes of Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Woodrow F. Call, two former Texas Rangers who set out on one last adventure to establish the first cattle operation in Montana. Jake Spoon’s bandanna still contains traces of trail dust, and you can almost smell the despair in Lorena Wood’s much-distressed dress. Gus’ Colt Dragoon revolver is nearby, along with the arrows that killed him. The prop that was used for his body is a somber reminder of what was lost along the way, as is the cross from his grave and Deets’ headstone.

“It’s unusual to have so much documentation and memorabilia from a production,” says Steve Davis, assistant curator of the collection. “It’s a great example of how some of the magic of filmmaking is achieved.”

Davis says he’s seen visitors tear up at the site of Gus’ body, a few who have come dressed as Gus and Call, and one who even named his children after the two characters. More than a few people make the Lonesome Dove room their first stop on a journey to retrace the cattle drive route from Texas to Montana. Some do it on horseback.

“It’s heartwarming to work here and see the enormous number of people who come here—who make a pilgrimage, really—to be a part of the Lonesome Dove experience,” Davis says. “The reaction is the same from people from all over the world. There’s a common thread that unites—certainly people from Texas and the West feel that finally a Western told what it was really like. The film has struck a real chord in the American psyche.”

Lonesome Dove began as a movie idea dreamed up by Larry McMurtry. In 1972, McMurtry wrote a screenplay treatment titled Streets of Laredo to star John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart. Peter Bogdanovich was to direct. When the project failed to gain traction, McMurtry expanded the story into a long, multi-layered novel. Published in 1985, the book grabbed the imagination of critics and the public alike, spending 20 weeks atop the New York Times best-seller list and winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

“Streets of Laredo didn’t move forward because John Wayne wouldn’t do it,” McMurtry says. “He would have been the Call character in that story, and he didn’t want to play what he considered to be an unlikable, hard-ass character. When he wouldn’t do it, everyone else lost interest. I do have a family background that involved the cattle trade and trail drive tradition, which is probably the main reason I decided to write Lonesome Dove.”

Shortly before the novel’s publication, McMurtry sent a draft to Suzanne de Passe at Motown Productions. Motown optioned the film rights for $50,000 and CBS contracted to air Lonesome Dove as an eight-hour miniseries in four installments. All that remained was to find a way to adapt McMurtry’s sweeping novel for television. That’s when de Passe called on Bill Wittliff to write the screenplay. A Texas native like McMurtry, Wittliff felt a personal connection to the characters and events detailed in the novel.

“Like everybody I thought it was an astonishing piece of work,” Wittliff says. “From a personal response it was so much about my country, my people, but of course everybody felt that. That’s one of the great things about [the novel] Lonesome Dove, everybody identified with it, and I absolutely did.”

Wittliff, who was also co-executive producer with de Passe on the miniseries, wrote most of the screenplay during stints at his vacation home on South Padre Island. He would listen to the book on tape on the 6 1/2-hour drive from his home in Austin.

“What was wonderful about that is that I was driving, not writing, and as I was listening I was making the pictures in my head. I got to see the whole film, or my version of it, making those trips down to South Padre. I would stay a week or so and write, and then I’d drive back and that would be another 6 1/2 hours.”

From the beginning, Wittliff knew that in order for the miniseries to be a success, he had to remain true to the book, and include all of its interconnected threads and characters.

“It’s an epic story, and I never would have left out those subplots,” Wittliff says. “They just gave it the richness and the size. There were some things that we filmed that did not make it to the final edit because we just didn’t have time, but we squeezed in as much as we could.”

Even though the time schedule was almost as tight as the budget, it was soon apparent that the Lonesome Dove project was buoyed by an enthusiasm unlike anything in television. The buzz reached every corner of the industry.

“It’s Larry’s story that got ’em,” Wittliff says. “All the old clichés are true—like attracts in kind. It was a great book, it was a good script, and it attracted great artists. They were so taken by Larry’s novel. I mean we had people from all over the United States who drove in on their own nickel just to see if they could be extras. It wasn’t so much they wanted to get something out of it, they wanted to put something in.”

Diane Lane, who played Lorena Wood, remembers picking up on that feeling as soon as she arrived in Austin to begin filming.

“Even the people I met at the airport and the people who didthe driving were all so meticulously into each character,” she says. “I’d never seen anything like it.”

That groundswell of intense appreciation for McMurtry’s novel, published just a few years earlier, permeated every aspect of the miniseries.

“There was a reverence for the original material that was carried out by Bill in his writing of the screenplay,” Lane says. “There was also great care taken in the casting, and when [Robert Duvall] signed on everybody couldn’t wait to work with him, so we had top drawer people from the very get-go wanting to play every part.”

Tommy Lee Jones, who played Call, says that the feeling among cast members was that the whole of Lonesome Dove was greater than the sum of its parts.

“Everybody that worked on the film cared a great deal about the authenticity of it. They felt it was mainly their responsibility to do right by the book,” Jones says. “There was a social conscience at work that was unusual at that time in the world of television.”

Says Wittliff: “Everybody was absolutely dedicated to it. Nobody ever said ‘oh don’t worry about it, it’s just television.’ We knew it was television, but everybody’s attitude was ‘well, we’re making a huge, epic movie which as it happens is going to be shown on television.”

Epic is right. Shot over 16 weeks at three different locations, the project called for 89 speaking parts, as many as 600 head of cattle, 90 horses, and four sets of pigs. The conditions varied from 100-degree heat on set in Del Rio, Texas, where the fictional town of Lonesome Dove was constructed, to freezing rain and snow in Angel Fire, New Mexico.

The remote shooting locations, budget and time crunch, as well as the sheer scope of the project required an effort far beyond the pale of an average television shoot.

Lane recalls slogging through creeks with a wary eye out for cottonmouths, as well as finding a scorpion in her petticoat while filming the scene where Gus entices her into the river.

“It got larger than life, definitely larger than the scale of normal filmmaking,” Lane says. “But to be in the environs that the story takes place in was very affecting.”

“I came in during the last three weeks and everyone was exhausted, having been in Texas and up in Angel Fire,” says Anjelica Huston, who played Clara Allen. “On several occasions I had to rally the troops because I could see the pages disappearing from the script—we simply did not have the time to do everything.”

But the motivation to bring the novel to life with the upmost authenticity, as well as the camaraderie of the cast and crew, overshadowed the numerous challenges.

We always said Lonesome Dove is the star, and I think everybody felt that,” Wittliff says. “Every once in a while the movie god just points through the clouds and says ‘regardless of what you do, this one’s going to work.’ There were so many places where this one could have fallen off the table. We were inventive in several places, but I don’t think any place cheated the film.”

Extraordinary luck also favored the production, such as when a freak snowstorm hit the community of Angel Fire in the middle of summer—on the same day the script called for a blizzard.

“We had snow machines and everything else ready to go and we woke up and the whole world was white,” Wittliff says. “Let me tell you, stuff like that happened all the time. The wholething was like walking through a miracle.”

The first installment of Lonesome Dove aired on Sunday, February 5, 1989. That day blasts of arctic air blew down from Canada and seized most of the country in its icy grip. Many people hunkered down in their homes to wait out the cold, and more than a few tuned in to CBS at 9 p.m. to watch Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call begin their adventure. Those who weren’t watching received a call from a friend or family member during the commercial breaks telling them to turn it on.

“Everybody stayed home and they started watching Lonesome Dove, and of course once you started then you couldn’t quit,” Wittliff says. “It was just unbelievable. People forget, at the time we did it the only thing deader than Westerns were miniseries, and this was a Western miniseries.”

Lonesome Dove generated huge ratings for CBS, and the network aired the miniseries for a second time shortly thereafter. Lonesome Dove won seven Emmys and two Golden Globes that year, but the public response was even more telling.

“It was overwhelming—the reviews were all great and the mail from people all across the country poured into the office,” Jones says. “We got heartfelt letters by the sack full from people who recognized their granddads and their fathers and their uncles in the story. They’d usually seen movies that were labeled ‘Western,’ and this seemed to defy that stereotype and be about real people and real places. They were very grateful to see the reality of their own history as opposed to some commercial distortion.”

“The dialogue, the characters, the individualism of the people, the self-sufficiency, the ruggedness, it was all captured so well in Lonesome Dove,” says Ricky Schroder, who played Newt Dobbs. “It depicts a piece of our history as Americans that speaks to us. I think we all like to think about a time when life was simpler, when there was more black and white instead of gray.”

In many ways, Lonesome Dove also set a new benchmark for the way Westerns looked and felt.

Says costume designer Van Broughton Ramsey: “I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re all still so proud of it 20 years later. Lonesome Dove was one of the first films to really show that the Old West is not about shoot ’em up, it’s about facing the everyday problems in life, being thankful for what you have, and moving on the best way you know how.”

It’s that simple, universal message, as well as the realistic portrayal of humanity in all its extremes, that keeps Lonesome Dove a fan favorite 20 years after its original release. And why, despite a lack of modern special effects and fast-paced sizzle, the film continues to resonate with a new generation of viewers.

“I wish Robert Urich [who played Jake Spoon] was still with us so he could experience the gratitude from all of the fans for his work,” says Lane. “But the wonderful gift of film is that the grave has no sway. You are forever in that encapsulated bubble and that’s a brilliant gift that film gives back to people who work in that medium. Your work can live forever.”